As children, we visit different monuments, palaces, and forts. Before reaching, my mother used to tell my sister and me the story of the place. We talked about the kings and battles and the folk tales associated with building. On reaching, a tour guide usually led the family: mostly a local who seemed old and weary but always had the energy to add more dramatic flair to the basic Wikipedia article of a queen who betrayed her king. I began to look at the dilapidated walls and wonder about the people who lived there. Their lives, their hopes and dreams, and their struggles and fear.
Over the formative years of our lives, we experience different types of spaces. Every encounter leaves a mark on us, sometimes a memory of moist grass beneath our feet, or a grand palace that towers over our tiny form, and leaves you feeling lost and awestruck at the same time.
We do not usually question these memories. We seldom wonder why we reacted the way we did. Why were we enthralled, to begin with? Was it the single stream of light entering an otherwise dark church that made us think of the hope the condemned prisoners might have held on to?
Studying architecture opens a plethora of ways of seeing and understanding spaces. An architect finds herself looking at the tiniest cracks on the old floor. She wonders how that massive stone was chiseled to tell entire stories of battles, of Gods and Goddesses, and why. She finds herself clicking pictures of the seemingly mundane junctions and wondering how some materials seem to converse so naturally with one another, while some would rather be left alone. As the days at design school turned into months, the answers started unraveling themselves. As she walks through the first few doors into the world of architecture, the labyrinth ahead seems to take on a new life.
It’s the same world. While most people experience it as a background for their daily chores, the architect sees it as an intersection of living spaces that propel life.
They realize the magic that others before them have used to bring their imagination to life. To create physical spaces for families, companies, institutions, and societies to live and grow in. The architect starts feeling the thrill of being able to create these spaces, starting from the ground up. Along with the frustrations of being stuck at different stages of design, she feels the thrill and excitement of resolving that tiny, niggling detail that led to sleepless nights. And the drawing becomes a real, vibrant space where people will live, interact, and create their own stories.
They learn to decipher the process that led to the outcome. The hopes and possibilities that tumbled around in the mind of the architect as he sat at his drawing board, tapping his pencil nervously against the drawing. They see the structure beneath the skin of the buildings-why was it built this way? Could it be better? Do the users use it the way the builder thought they would? Does it need to evolve?
Let’s imagine the instance of an architect and a financier from a small town who come to visit Mumbai, and they both take a trip through South Bombay. While the financier may be flummoxed by the crore-plus pricing of a few square feet of land, the architect is enthralled by the myriad stories set in stone.
She is humbled and frustrated at the same time. There is the grandeur of the old colonial buildings but she can also sense the incongruence of those massive, ornate pillars on the fragile strip of land teeming with millions. The glitzy skyscrapers glimmer in the sunlight as they trample over the sustenance of the thousands of slum dwellers who too belong to this city of dreams.
She isn’t able to neglect it as a passing scenery on a drive. She wants to know more, and she wants to do more. It becomes a new seed planted in her mind. Any experience, even one as simple as commuting between two points in a city can give birth to an idea for an architect.
Or maybe, we can think of how most people remember the experiences of places they live in. The hotel rooms felt like home and the little things that made them delightful. The softness of the mattress dips just the right amount. They remember waking up to mornings rising between snowy peaks of the Himalayas. An architect imbibes these details during his visits, and they continue to influence him throughout his design career. He thinks about how to create and choreograph memories for others. To ensure that others would feel the same thrill, adding a tiny detail that would reinforce the magic of the place, another one to ensure the unique experience, something to remember the place forever.
The architect also learns to step out of her perspective and imagine how different people would be impacted by the built environment and what stories they would carry home with them. Would they think of the building as just another place for a comfortable stay? Would they remember the mellow sunlight peeking in through the soft drape of the east window? The waft of freshly baked cookies with a hint of cinnamon that lingered in the breakfast room? Are they going to remember the damp soil beneath their feet or cool stones interspersed with the warm ones exposed to the harsh sun?
Architects weave life into new spaces and they must expose themselves to different ways of seeing moments in their own lives. After all, a small connection or a single spark is all it takes to trigger the design process!